Friday, 7 December 2012

Where did it all go wrong?


Where did it all go wrong? How could we have ended up in this economic mess? My answer to this question is that it went wrong because we stopped investing in society. We stopped thinking social. When I say 'we' I am being kind. There were many of us who continued to think that society needed attention and investment. We believed and still believe that society is more than the sum of its parts; society is more than an aggregate of self-interested people. So how and when did we forget that?

Society used to be the objective of politics; to create a better society, a more caring society, a more tolerant society, a fairer society, a more 'equal' society and, yes, even a society that fostered opportunity.  Back in the 1960s we still talked about society. We argued more about how to improve it rather than whether it had a role. By the end of the 1970s 'society' was under threat but still kicking back; by the end of the 1980s it was very sick and politically speaking if not in reality it was dying. Now the words 'social' and 'society' appear to be all but banished from the political lexicon.

Mrs Thatcher notoriously stated that there was no such thing as society. It is often said that her remark in 1987 was taken out of context. So let's see it in context:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

What this context tells us is that Mrs Thatcher's view of 'society' was that it was simply an aggregate of individuals; sociology died because there was nothing to study other than the individual behaviour.  More significant than casting society aside is this: 'people must look after themselves'. 
In this statement in 1987 we have the origins of our problem today because it heralded a fundamental shift in political and economic objective. The transfer of public wealth to private hands and public debt to private household debt; but also a fundamental shift in responsibility from public to private and a devil take the hindmost approach. The pursuit of self-interest would somehow benefit all because it would be a 'mutual self-interest.' Mutual self interest replaced society. The breaks on bank lending were removed, people could now borrow to buy houses, and very often former social housing. The social housing stock declined; house prices increased; borrowing to live now was an inevitably flawed strategy and all it required was the collapse of the irresponsible banks that were fuelling it. 
But let's turn Mrs Thatcher on its head (or her head): If you invest in society by providing decent housing, decent health and decent education and training then people (individuals and families) will be more able to 'look after themselves'. Nor is what Mrs Thatcher said true. It was philosophically flawed. When she said 'people MUST look to themselves FIRST', this is clear nonsense. There is no reason why they must and certainly no reason why they would always be able to.  This is why the coalition government's approach to welfare is unethical. It seeks to drive people back to work by reducing benefits whilst providing no means for this to happen in reality. So the poor bear the greater burden of austerity. 
To say to a homeless family 'you must look to yourself first' hardly helps. There may be a variety of reasons why they are homeless: the consequences of unemployment for example. A good social strategy would be one that prevented homelessness by addressing its causes. Not surprisingly, homelessness went up during Mrs Thatcher's revolution and some of us can remember the growth of 'cardboard' cities with more and more people sleeping rough and families in bed and breakfast. 
The solutions are not easy; the crisis is profound. But we need to start rebuilding society. We need increased social investment in housing, health and education. We need to see economic activity as part of social activity. 

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